I was waiting until I could find my copy of Old Peter’s Russian Tales–a collection of Russian fairy tales as retold by a British visitor (Arthur Ransome, of Swallows & Amazons fame) with British children in mind–only to discover that it’s available for free in multiple places online. D’oh. I did find my book. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the book, you can’t say it’s any kind of authority on actual stories told in Russia in the early 20th Century. But it was immensely popular and it introduced Russian culture to the English-speaking world. Even if that culture was through a British filter.
It’s problematic, is what I’m saying.
We’re going to read it anyway, and I’m going to do my best to compare versions of the stories.
Today’s story is The Silver Saucer and the Transparent Apple. We’re comparing SurLaLune’s rendering of Old Peter with this WikiSource rendering of a translation by Leonard Arthur Magnus from Russian author
A merchant family consists of a father, mother, and three daughters. The youngest daughter is good, kind, and pretty. She does her sisters’ chores for them. So naturally they call her Little Stupid (Russian: Fool) and mock her all the time.
One day when their father goes to market he asks the girls what they would like as presents. The older girls ask for a necklace and a dress (Russian: red cloth for a sarafan and scarlet nankin… whatever those are) but Little Stupid asks for a silver saucer and a transparent apple. The father laughs at her, but he brings back all the gifts as asked. While the older girls are strutting around with their new finery, Little Stupid spins the transparent apple in the saucer until it turns misty and she can see pictures of other places in the world.
Her sisters get very jealous but she refuses to trade. So the older girls lure her away from the house, expecting her to bring her magic possessions with her. Instead Little Not-So-Stupid leaves them with their father, who locks them up for her. She goes to pick berries with her sisters and when she can’t give them the items they murder her with an axe and bury the body. They go back home, say she was eaten by wolves, and everyone is very sad. When they ask the father for the saucer and apple, he says he’s going to keep them in her memory. So they murdered their little sister for nothing.
The following spring, a shepherd boy happens upon a sapling surrounded by flowers with a single reed growing beneath it. Weird, right? So he decides he’s going to make a reed pipe as memento of this moment. But as soon as the pipe is made it starts chanting/singing a rhyme about a murdered girl. He runs back to the village with the pipe, and the father hears it singing about the saucer and apple. The shepherd takes him back to the tree and they dig until they find Little Stupid… who is not a bloody, rotting mess, but looks beautiful and only sleeping. Shepherd gets a bad case of the insta-loves. The reed pipe changes its message to say that the sisters killed her, and if the father brings back water from the Tsar’s well Little Stupid will come back to life. The sisters are thrown in jail, the shepherd takes up watch over the tree, and the father goes to get the water.
When the father reaches the palace he’s able to talk directly to the Tsar to beg for some of his water. The Tsar is very kind and asks to hear the whole sad story. He agrees to give the father the water, but he wants the whole family to come back to the palace when he’s done. Father agrees, goes home, wakes up Little Stupid, tearful reunion, etc. etc.
She is so good that she begs them to free her sisters, but everyone sensible refuses and the cuffed sisters are carted off to the palace with the father and Little Stupid. The shepherd literally runs after their cart the entire way, he’s that smitten. The Tsar wastes no time ordering that the bad sisters shall be executed at sundown.
Then he asks to see the saucer and apple, which they’ve brought with them. Little Stupid shows him how to see the world . Then she offers that he keep them and begs for the lives of her sisters because apparently she is that stupid. The Tsar agrees to let them go, then asks Little Stupid to marry him and be Tsaritza. She coyly say she’ll marry him if her parents say so, which pleases him, and with the approval of her parents they marry. She asks for the whole family to be allowed to live with them in the palace and her wish is granted. Because why wouldn’t you want the sisters who murdered you to join you in the palace? They live happily ever after, lots of babies, etc.
The shepherd boy is alone. But this is okay, because if he’d married her and she wanted the whole family to live together, he’d only have been able to house everyone in a hut. Guess everything worked out for the best!
It’s that last part that really made me go “wtf was that?” And it’s not part of the original story, it’s something made up for Old Peter by Ransome. What was that, Ransome?? In fact, he expands the role of the shepherd significantly. Everything after showing the father to the tree is invented. The shepherd doesn’t fall in love with Little Stupid and he doesn’t have a sad ending. I don’t understand why this is there-! It’s entirely possible that Ransome heard or read versions of the story that included this, but I think it was made up for a final chuckle at the end.
In other news, it’s really awful that this girl is so good it actually makes her do dumb things like all her sisters’ chores and then pardoning them after they murder her. I hated having to retype “Little Stupid” every time, but that’s all the name she has. (And I think ‘Little Stupid’ is meaner than ‘Fool’.)
In the Russian version her knowledge of the saucer and apple is explained. They’re “words which an old woman taught me in return for my giving her a loaf of white bread.” But the stuff with the reed pipe is never explained. In the Russian they don’t describe her dead body as being beautiful. The father can recognize her but that’s it.
Also, I left out the descriptions in both of the Tsar being extra special. He is like unto the sun and basically a living God etc. etc. makes you sort of sympathize with the revolutionaries.
WTF Scale: …why did you add that last part?!
Seriously, I can’t get over how this poor shepherd is instrumental in rescuing the girl and he never gets any repayment or thanks. The bloody Tsar marries her. And we’re to believe this is karmic justice because rich is better than poor. wtf.
This brutal little tale almost had logic going for it. I mean, sororicide aside, it was fairly normal. Ish. Right? My idea of ‘normal’ for fairy tales may be warping.
Hopefully I’ll find my book of Irish myths next…